The Practice of Practicing Everything

What would your life be like if everything you did was just for practice? And not just to prepare for some future performance or competition, but to experience the simple joy that comes from working at a skill, be it sinking a jump shot, finishing a piece of furniture, or just communicating more openly and honestly with your spouse?

While a key and hoped-for byproduct of practice is, of course, improved competence, what if seeking to improve was no longer the pièce de résistance of your hard work? What if instead, the principal motivation became the desire to just enjoy doing something heartfully nd mindfully, meaning, with your whole heart and body devoted 100% to whatever it is you were doing in the moment? I know I’m asking a lot of questions here, but what if instead of just brushing your teeth before bed tonight, you “practiced” doing so? And did so in a manner similar to the way I’ve described above? Where you stayed completely present in the activity and just enjoyed doing it for its own sake?

When practicing something (at least in the beginning), is there not a natural tendency within all of us to pay closer attention to what we’re doing? Returning to the whole brushing of your teeth thing, when was the last time you slowed down long enough to just enjoy the simple processes of gargling with mouthwash and then flossing your teeth even before you brushed (yes, I recommend goin at it in that particular order)? For those of you who are married, when was the last time you surrendered to the lingering taste of toothpaste on your spouse’s lips only to go back for seconds a moment or two later? “Slow down,” the old man whispered, “you just might taste something!”

One of the things I really like about approaching everything I do as though it’s just for practice is the incredibly freeing notion that tells me I don’t have to get exactly right (right now) whatever it is I’m doing right now. When it’s all just for practice, isn’t there a natural tendency within all of us to forgive mistakes? And to do so eagerly? Before I venture any farther, I want to define the word practicer [Note: You will not find this word in the dictionary. Sorry.].

According to Dave’s Expository Dictionary of Made-up Words, a practicer is someone who engages continually in the practice of practicing everything. A practicer is someone who’s discovered the true joy of treating everything he [or she] does as though it’s just practice. In addition, a practicer is someone who works tirelessly to create an atmosphere wherein mistakes are not just tolerated, but encouraged. In fact, a practicer will, with great abandon, run toward mistakes and seek to make as many of them as quickly as possible. Why? Because he’s learned the value of a mistake and of what it can teach him—if he’ll let it. Take Thomas Edison, for example. Even though Edison is credited with inventing the light bulb, he wasn’t its true inventor. In fact, the light bulb was probably invented at least 20 years before Edison was born. The problem, though, was no one could make one burn long enough to make it worth manufacturing. That is, until Edison came along and discovered a carbonized bamboo filament that could glow for nearly 1,200 hours before burning-out. Before his “successful discovery,” Edison “failed” about a thousand times to come up with a viable filament. In responding to his critics, he was heard to have said something to the effect of, “Gentlemen… I haven’t failed in my task. I’ve just discovered successfully a thousand ways to not make a light bulb.” Like Edison, a practicer is neither defeated nor shamed by his mistakes. On the contrary, he’s formed and forged by them.

What if, in choosing to approach everything you did as though it were just practice, you dropped your compulsive need to be perfect and allowed yourself to be content with just doing your best? How much more enjoyable would your work and every-day actions be if this became the new norm for you? And how many other pursuits would you attempt or take-up if such an attitude became a defining characteristic of your life? Many years ago (before she passed away in 2002), I asked my late wife, Brenda, if she would like to take piano lessons. Her response was, “I’ve never been very good at playing the piano. Why would I take lessons?” As absurd as such a thing might sound (and I mean no disrespect to Brenda), all of us do this kind of thing, don’t we? At least, to a degree. It’s the curse of “responsible” adulthood… that restraining ball and chain that says, “Stay only within the arenas of already achieved competence because that’s what will help you get ahead professionally, pay the bills, and provide a more secure future for you and your family.”

But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there? Even though we might not acknowledge it, we also tell ourselves that staying within the arenas of achieved competence will keep us from falling on our faces and from suffering the flood of embarrassing feelings that often accompanies such foibles. Heaven forbid that any of us should ever “fail” at anything—especially, if it’s work-related and done in front of a work-peer.

Our culture is incredibly performance oriented. So much so that on an almost hourly basis we each run the risk of feeling we’re somehow deficient if we don’t hit a homerun (or at least rattle the fences) every time we step up to the plate. Even if it’s our first time at bat! In baseball, the greatest hitters in the world get a hit only about 30 percent of the time. Discounting “walks,” what that means is that these world-class athletes “fail” to get on base about seven out of every ten times they step up to the plate.

One of the greatest hitters of all time, a man many say changed the face of baseball forever, was the legendary ball player, George Herman Ruth. For those of you not familiar with Mr. Ruth, “The Babe,” as he was affectionately nicknamed, played major league baseball from 1914-1935. During his 21-year career, Babe Ruth hit a record 714 homeruns, and, for nearly forty years, that record remained unbeaten until Hank Aaron broke it on April 8, 1974. As a young boy (and aspiring baseball player myself), I remember watching the replay of Mr. Aaron’s record-breaking homerun.

I share the above as a prelude to the following: While Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron were homerun kings, they were kings in another arena of baseball, too: strikeouts. For those of you who don’t know what a strikeout is, I provide you with the following definition from the rules of baseball: “A strikeout is an out called when a batter has accumulated three strikes while at bat.” A “strike,” for all practical purposes, is a “miss.” Did you know that while Babe Ruth was belting out his 714 homeruns, he struck out 1,330 times? And that, similarly, while Hank Aaron was batting his way to Hall of Fame glory, he logged an impressive 1,383 strikeouts? Why was this? Because each time they stepped up to the plate (whether it was in an official game or not), they put everything they had into each swing. And, as with just about anything difficult, when a ball is being hurled at you at nearly 90 mph, and you’re swinging at it with the purpose of knocking it out of the park, you’re probably going to miss a few times. In fact, you’re probably going to miss far more often than not. Regarding Babe Ruth’s stats, his 1,330 strikeouts equated to nearly 4,000 misses. Hank Aaron’s equated to well over 4,000. What can we take from all this? Well, when questioned about his own strikeout record, Merrill Hess, a fictional minor league homerun king in the 2002 film Signs, said, “It felt wrong not to swing.” And that’s it; that’s the take-away: “It felt wrong not to swing.” Do those words hit you as hard as they do me?

To me, it seems many of us are so afraid of missing we won’t even show up for the game, let alone, step up to the plate and take a swing. I want to be a part of changing that. Each day, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron stepped up eagerly to the plate and committed themselves entirely to what they were doing. To them, “it felt wrong” to devote anything less than their entire fortitude to their efforts. They carried within them a personal sense of honor that overshadowed whatever potential ridicule they might suffer should they come up short. A while ago, I memorized the following quote from a 1910 speech delivered by President Teddy Roosevelt at The Sorbonne in Paris, France. It captures beautifully the sentiment of this essay. Perhaps, you’ll consider memorizing it, too.

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without errors or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Every aspect of life is important. In a way, the game really is on the line every time we step up to the plate (or set foot in the arena). But, as I wrote above, we don’t have to get it all right all the time, or even get it all right ever. Statistically speaking, most of us are going to fall short many times in our lives. Accepting this and beginning to approach each time at bat (or whatever it is we’re doing) as a way of practicing being present and committing everything we have to what we’re doing right then and there will, ultimately, bring about great success. And it will leave a lasting legacy, too. It’s quite interesting that while Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron are most remembered for their respective 714 and 755 home runs, they’re remembered almost as much for their high strikeout counts. Why? Because it’s a key element of their respective stories. In fact, significant failure is a part of every success story from Thomas Edison to Abraham Lincoln to Colonel Sanders. President Roosevelt got it right when he said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without errors or shortcoming.” Swing away, my friends, and don’t be afraid to miss, because “missing” can teach you volumes if you’ll let it. When you fall short, be undaunted, and remind yourself you’re traversing a hallowed path that many of the greatest people in history walked upon before you. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Or to do differently the things you already know how to do.

For most of my life, I’ve been inspired by Christian monks. The monks live what I write about above to a tee. Even though their practice “today” may look very much like yesterday’s practice, it isn’t. Why? Because they’re not the same people they were yesterday. Perhaps, that’s why to them each day is so illuminating unto itself. Each moment becomes a new creation from within as they give themselves over to “the beginner’s mind” and surrender 100% to whatever it is that’s arising in their current experience. A common word of grace, spoken amongst many a monastic novitiate, is the pithy, “Be honest… pick yourself up… move yourself forward… be honest.” Oh, that we might all tap in to such a way of being. And that we, too (beginning with you and me), might be a part of creating a culture where the making of mistakes is not just tolerated but lauded. That has become my hope and, dare I write, my prayer for me and those I love and care about most.

To err is human (and we cannot be anything other than human); to learn from our mistakes is also human. Be human, my friends, and give yourself permission to be so. Embrace your “beginner’s mind,” and when you step up to the plate, swing away, learn from your misses, and discover the simple joys that come with losing yourself in whatever it is you’re doing in the moment.